Sharapova on peace mission

MOSCOW - Maria Sharapova is in the Middle East working on her own peace process hoping it will pave the way to Olympic gold in Beijing in August.

The Russian golden girl, the world's richest sportswoman, is spearheading her country's defence of its Fed Cup title that gets its first examination against Israel this weekend.

There is plenty at stake.

Sharapova, fresh from her first Australian Open title and third career Grand Slam crown, has never represented her country before but needs to demonstrate her commitment to the Fed Cup if she is to play in the Olympics.

Furthermore, her blue chip sponsors desperately need to see their investment reap maximum rewards when the world's biggest sports event dominates headlines for three weeks in China in August.

Sharapova also knows that she needs to repair relationships with her teammates, many of whom have criticised her in the past for pulling out of the squad.

The 20-year-old insists that despite her accent, upbringing and lifestyle - which is more St Petersburg, Florida than St Petersburg, Russia - there are no personal issues in the Russian camp.

"The majority of us have a wonderful relationship. We do," said Sharapova who irked Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anna Chakvetadze when she was invited to cheer the team on from the sidelines in the 2007 Fed Cup final win over Italy in Moscow.

"I don't know what you saw, but we all went to team dinners. I have really good relationships. I couldn't play in the final but the captain asked me to come and support them, and that's the least I could do," said Sharapova.

Russia captain Shamil Tarpishchev has played mediator between Sharapova and Kuznetsova, who is absent this weekend, and Chakvetadze, who will be playing. - Sapa-AFP